Poe and the Gothics - Edgar Allan Poe - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Poe and the Gothics
Edgar Allan Poe
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

The critical question, from an historical perspective, is the precise degree to which Poe was influenced by his Gothic predecessors. Surprisingly little systematic work has apparently been done on this issue. It has been well established that Poe was significantly influenced, in his early poetry, by such Romantics as Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, and Thomas Moore, and we shall presently discuss a central influence of Coleridge in another direction; but the extent to which Poe was influenced—as a poet, short story writer, and critical theorist—by the work of Radcliffe, Lewis, Maturin, Hoffmann, Irving, and many lesser figures of the generations preceding his own is by no means clear and perhaps, by the nature of the existing evidence, can never be clear.

As a practising critic and reviewer, Poe had occasion to take note of many books coming off the British and American presses; but, of course, no new works by the leading Gothic writers appeared in the fifteen-year period of his major work as a book reviewer (roughly the years from 1835 to his death). More importantly, the entire Gothic movement was regarded as utterly passé, to the degree that Poe’s own (very different) work in this approximate vein was frequently criticised by reviewers, and even some of his own colleagues, as embarrassingly outmoded. The haunted castle, the terrors of the Inquisition, the perils of saintly heroines—all this was played out, finished; and Poe himself, in some of his passing critical remarks, reflected some of the scorn and ridicule that the Gothic movement was compelled to endure.

There are frequent mentions of Horace Walpole in Poe’s existing body of criticism, but not one of them refers to him as the author of The Castle of Otranto. There is not a single reference to M. G. Lewis, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, E. T. A. Hoffmann, or James Hogg in Poe’s essays and reviews. The only reference to Lewis comes in a late letter (26 June 1849), and it alludes to one of Lewis’s Gothic plays (449—50). There are two scornful references to Charles Robert Maturin, one of which is fairly early (the “Letter to B——,” 1836) and points to what Poe sees as a fundamental improbability in the very construction of Melmoth the Wanderer: “I should no doubt be tempted to think of the devil in Melmoth, who labors indefatigably through three octavo volumes, to accomplish the destruction of one or two souls, while any common devil would have demolished one or two thousand” (ER 7). This remark is repeated with little change in a review six years later (ER 189). The “three octavo volumes” comment may also reflect Poe’s early contempt for long works, either in prose or in verse. In regard to Washington Irving, Poe remarks in an 1838 letter that “I can hardly say that I am conversant with Irving’s writings, having read nothing of his since I was a boy, save his ’[The Conquest of] Granada’” and going on to say, “Irving is much overrated, and a nice distinction might be drawn between his just and his surreptitious and adventitious reputation” (111—12).

I have said that there are no references to Ann Radcliffe in Poe’s criticism (nor, in fact, in his relatively small body of surviving letters). But there is in fact one citation of her in his corpus—and it occurs, curiously enough, in a story. “The Oval Portrait” (1842) opens as follows: “The chateau into which my valet had ventured to make forcible entrance, rather than permit me, in my desperately wounded condition, to pass a night in the open air, was one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur which have so long frowned among the Appenines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe” (CW 2.662). The reference is clearly to The Mysteries of Udolpho, set in the Appenines; but the tone of the remark suggests an awareness that the general scenario of a gloomy and forbidding castle had become painfully hackneyed and all but unusable as a literary device.

Are there no Gothic writers, then, whom Poe enjoyed? There are tolerably favourable passing mentions of Charles Brockden Brown, one of which (in an 1843 review of James Fenimore Cooper) cites him and several other writers as among the American authors of “more worthy and more artistical fictions” (ER 480). La Motte-Fouqué’s Undine is praised on several occasions, including an extensive 1839 review of a new edition of the work. In this review Poe actually declares the work to be “the finest romance in existence” (ER 257). But we have already seen that Undine is not central to the supernatural tradition, and its relevance to or influence on Poe does not appear significant.

From Poe’s perspective, two Gothic writers of the previous generation were worth singling out—William Godwin and E. T. A. Hoffmann. Poe reviewed Godwin’s late work, Lives of the Necromancers (1834), when it was first published, and he begins his review with high praise: “The name of the author of Caleb Williams, and of St. Leon, is, with us, a word of weight, and one which we consider a guarantee for the excellence of any composition to which it may be affixed” (ER 259). Much of what he writes about Godwin in this review could be applied just as accurately to himself:

[There is] an air of mature thought—of deliberate premeditation pervading, in a remarkable degree, even his most common-place observations. He never uses a hurried expression, or hazards either an ambiguous phrase, or a premature opinion. His style therefore is highly artificial; but the extreme finish and proportion always observable about it, render this artificiality, which in less able hands would be wearisome, in him a grace inestimable. We are never tired of his terse, nervous, and sonorous periods—for their terseness, their energy, and even their melody, are made, in all cases, subservient to the sense in which they are invariably fraught. (ER 259)

Burton R. Pollin (“Godwin and Poe”) makes a strong case for the influence of Godwin on Poe in a multiplicity of ways. Godwin’s Caleb Williams—which Poe, echoing a comment he maintained was derived from a letter to him by Charles Dickens, claimed Godwin “wrote … backwards” (ER 13)—could well have influenced Poe’s detective stories, which were themselves written (or, at least, conceived) backwards, in the sense that the denouement had to be devised before the mystery plot could be constructed to lead to it. Pollin goes on to say that this general sense of the importance of literary architecture is a significant lesson that Poe could have derived from Godwin, as well as the searching psychological analysis of character that we find in both Caleb Williams and the supernatural St. Leon.

I have already noted that there is no explicit mention of Hoffmann in Poe’s entire extant corpus of work; but, as will become evident very quickly, Poe was unquestionably familiar with Hoffmann’s work—at least at second hand. Poe could not read German, so that he was reliant on translations or paraphrases of Hoffmann or criticism or reviews of his work. The very title of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque may have been derived indirectly from Hoffmann. I say indirectly because, more than a century ago, Gustav Gruener pointed out a provocative phrase in Sir Walter Scott’s celebrated review of Hoffmann (“On the Supernatural in Fictitious Composition”): “In fact the grotesque in his compositions partly resembles the arabesque in painting” (14). In the preface to that volume (as I shall discuss in greater detail presently), Poe uses the phrase “phantasy-pieces”—a phrase that he wished to use for a collection of his tales that he was planning in 1842. It is likely, as Gruener maintains, that this title alludes to Hoffmann’s Fantasiestücke of 1814—15. Some influences of specific Hoffmann tales on Poe’s own stories shall be noted in due course.